The Atlantic: The future of urban highways is playing out in upstate New York

syracuse I-81 viaduct study mapOver at The Atlantic Cities today there's a good overview of the situation surrounding the impending replacement of I-81 in Syracuse, which runs right through the heart of the Salt City's downtown. The situation will probably sound very familiar to anyone who's thought about the future of I-787 in Albany. A clip:

City leaders like Robinson, along with downtown developers and advocates for smart growth, would like to see I-81 rerouted around Syracuse and replaced with a landscaped boulevard. But suburban business-owners and many of the 45,000 drivers who use the highway to commute fear that any change could hurt the local economy. It's a debate that goes beyond the immediate question of how Syracuse workers will get to work -- to what kind of city Syracuse will be in the 21st century.
Similar discussions are happening across the United States, says John Norquist, president of the Chicago-based Congress for the New Urbanism, which publishes an occasional list of interstates ripe for demolition. Many urban freeways -- a staple of mid-20th century car-centric development -- are beginning to fall apart, and today cities from New Haven to Seattle (not to mention others around the world) are taking the dramatic step of tearing them down. A former Milwaukee mayor, Norquist oversaw the conversion of an elevated highway to a boulevard there in 2002, following a model pioneered by Portland in 1978 and San Francisco in 1991.
"It's starting to happen all over the place, and there's a reason for it," says Norquist. "Freeways don't add value to cities. They're all about one dimension, which is just moving traffic. It's a rural form, visited upon the city, that destroys property values, commerce and vitality."

The article, by Amy Crawford, is a good overview because it captures many of the tensions of the situation -- between city and suburbs, between walkable and automobile infrastructure, between local and state decision making. And, oh yeah, cost.

As that clip mention, the thing about these elevated highways, 787 included, is that they eventually will reach the end of their lives -- because they will be literally falling apart. That will mean hard choices -- and maybe also big opportunities.

[via @rachbarnhart]

+ In another upstate city, a discussion about an urban highway
+ "The Life and Death of Urban Highways"
+ The Albany 2030 plan included a goal of evaluating possible alternative designs for 787
+ The Stakeholders org released a report in 2011 that imagines the Albany waterfront with a boulevard

map: I-81 Challenge


A lot of the discussion about 787 has been about reconnecting Albany with the river. While that'd be nice, I think the bigger issue is doing something about the south mall arterial. The arterial is a lot more like I81 (which also runs right through the city) than 787 proper is - it separates the city from itself. It also seems like it'd be possible to change/remove the arterial without taking on the entire 787 project at the same time. Anybody know of any studies or other thoughts approaching the issue from that angle?

The Highways to Boulevards idea ( seems like it could work with some caveats.
The problem with 787 is, it's basically the straightest line between Latham-Watervliet and Troy and downtown Albany. Thus, lots of traffic.
I think in the near future, more and more people are going to be embracing alternatives to cars.
I think some kind of light rail option could work to alleviate the stress a street-level roadway would have.

I-787 is not an elevated highway. The on/off ramps at the Dunn and I-90 interchanges are spaghetti piles of bridges, but most of the highway itself is on the ground. Therefore don't hold your breath waiting for it to "literally fall apart".

@ Mike

I'm so glad you've pointed that out Mike, I've been thinking that myself for awhile now. The South Mall Arterial (and let's just face it, the whole South Mall) does a real number on the consistency of downtown's urban fabric. I'd be so nice to actually walk from say, Academy Park to the Mansion District, but as you've aptly pointed out, it truly separates the city from itself. If we can't rip the f'ing thing out, it would be cool then to maybe see a way of decking over it with greenspace (like the High Line in NYC). But then again, the more I think of that the more I just want rip the f'ng thing out.

@Terrence Glad to hear others are thinking about it as well. I walk around the city a lot and one of my least favorite places to walk is crossing from mansion to downtown, whether it's the eagle st underpass or further east where the highway is overhead.

It seems to me that converting the arterial to an at grade boulevard might free up a significant amount of land for development, especially near the 787 junction where you'd be eliminating at least one or two ramps (it does seem that many of the ramps would need to remain to provide access to 787 and the Dunn Memorial). Even the median of the hypothetical blvd seems like it'd be big enough for some smaller buildings at certain points. I wonder if the sale / lease / taxation of those freed up plots could put a dent in the cost of doing the project to begin with. Unfortunately I don't really know enough to run any of those numbers, just playing armchair urban planner here.

No question the ESP was a big setback to the city. It's a real shame actually. Totally killed the flow and connectivity of the city. Now there is downtown and uptown and they might as well be a world apart. Nobody walks from one to the other anymore.

As for 787, get rid of it, redesign a grid system for regular city streets on top of it and sell off the parcels for development. Another massive blow to Albany.

There are two stretches of 787 that are elevated. Church St to Broadway is 3/10 of a mile and the other, Quay St. to the boat launch is 4/10 of a mile. Then there's the extensive network of ramps and fly overs to accommodate entry and exit to the mess. NYSDOT is in the midst of a $100 million dollar maintenance project to keep the structure standing. Take a look at the work being done at Broadway, the Patroon Island overpass, and the boat launch parking lot. This isn't improvement work, it's band-aid work. 787 had reached the end of it's service life long ago and Congress, kicking the can down the road, has failed for decades to address the capital backlog of highway infrastructure that is failing at a rapid rate (Minnesota's collapse of the I-35 bridge is a harbinger).

What advocates for removal or redesign are asking for is a cost effective solution. Sure, it has all the benefits of access and opening up land for development, all good stuff. But in the same vein it's bad financial planning to spend so much money to maintain a structure that's failing. It's akin to paying credit card interest, but not addressing the underlying debt.

787 can be boulevardized, it can have a better access management, and we have the sophisticated technology both to predict and address congestion, tools that were not around in the age when these terrible albatross' structures were built.

Let's be smart about our money and our public spaces. NYSDOT can no longer afford to keep doing business as usual while this "literally falls apart."

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